Be fruitful and multiply
Having a child. It’s so uniquely personal, so life-changing and, same time, so commonplace. Where does our faith enter the picture?
Maddie Callaghan was born on August 21 at 4.20 am.
“You have that ideal scene in your head, with a natural birth, and the baby is born healthy,” says Lauren. “You imagine the baby on your chest and you get to bond right away.”
Lauren’s labour was 104 hours. And the trouble didn’t end there.
“I only had her on my chest for a second before they realised she wasn’t breathing and they whisked her away. I kept saying to Geoff, ‘This isn’t what we wanted.’
“Giving birth is the last great crapshoot of modern life,” she says. “It’s one of the few things you can’t control. You know you or the baby could die.”
Maddie is 2 now and possessed of an iron will. Geoff goes to pour her some water as they sit on the lounge together. “Not that cup,” she says. “Other cup.”
“Just watching Maddie develop is amazing,” says Geoff. “Even when she’s chucking tantrums, it’s an amazing experience.”
Maddie has a new sister now: Ana.
Ana is two weeks old and hardly ever awake. Her tongue protrudes, testing the air, then withdraws. She’ll lie happily in anyone’s lap, arms and legs akimbo.
Maddie has an anatomically detailed baby doll called Chrysanthemum that she strokes, dresses and carries around the house. The urge to nurture a child starts early.
The Bible’s position
How does our faith bear upon our decision to have children — and where do we seek guidance?
The Bible verses are there, in a handful of translations. And then there is the library full of prescriptions on how these verses apply to Christian parenting.
At one end of the spectrum is the view that having children is more than a call — it’s our duty.
In Covenant Christian, Sean Bird writes that Genesis 1:28 is “not a command for a special time a place. It is part of the dominion mandate.”
He goes on to list 15 biblical reasons to have another child. Reason#9: “Have another child to help end abortion.” Reason #15 “Have another child to help populate heaven.”
Commentators at the liberal end of the spectrum are more circumspect. Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Baylor University gets caught in a flurry of double negatives.
“I don’t know whether Christians have a duty to be fertile but I certainly do not see that they have a Christian duty not to have children.”
This comes from Be Fruitful and Multiply, a compilation by the General Synod of Australia’s Anglican Church.
The social responsibility
Arguments against having kids often come from a sense of social responsibility.
We’re depleting our world’s resources and already the toll on our environment is showing. By having children, are we just throwing fuel on the fire?
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith has taken up the cause of overpopulation.
On his website, “Dick Smith Population”, he recalls his Road to Damascus moment. His daughter said to him, “Dad, they are all talking about human induced climate change and they’re all going off to Copenhagen. Why don’t they talk about the ‘elephant in the room: population.’”
Dick Smith’s response was to launch the Wilberforce award. He promises a $1 million prize to someone under 30 who shows leadership in promoting an alternative to “our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy”.
Tom Yoo, 30, and Helen Yoo, 28, go to Maroubra Junction Uniting. They’re just beginning to talk about having a family. For Tom, his sense of social responsibility made him hesitate at first.
“In all honesty, factors like overpopulation played on my mind to the point where I was like, ‘Is it actually ethical to bring more children into the world?”
Bringing it home
How do Christians bring these questions into their own decisions? There’s no conversion table; no algorithm to factor in the ethical questions against the deeply personal.
As a forensic scientist, Helen Yoo used to struggle with the dichotomy between the social and the personal.
“I like to make a decision based on the evidence; the pros and cons. Now, I feel comfortable making the decision based on subjective factors.”
When they eventually decided that having children was on the cards, their faith didn’t play a major role. “I feel I’d be a good father but I don’t really sense any sort of call,” says Tom. “I’m curious to see what Helen thinks.”
Helen responds. “My sense of call to live out my discipleship doesn’t involve kids and it doesn’t not involve kids, even though I think about it deeply and I’m prayerful about it,” says Helen.
“I would love to know what God thinks about us having kids but I haven’t received an indication one way or the other.”
But the decision to try for children was far from arbitrary.
Tom and Helen hope that it will add meaning to the totality of their lives. “I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and I think, ‘I could have had kids. Why didn’t I?’” says Tom.
Their feeling is that having children gives them access to an experience of the world they can’t reach any other way.
“I like the idea of showing my child the world and them showing me the world through their eyes,” says Helen. “It just seems like a fundamental human experience that I don’t want to give up without a really good reason.”
Sometimes we’re surprised by the sudden possibility of ourselves as parents.
For Tom it came when he and Helen visited Helen’s aunt. In the aunt’s aviary, Tom saw a canary chick lying on the floor. Just days old, raggedy feathers and a scrawny neck.
Tom made its food by mixing the special seed paste for newborn birds. He fed it every two hours until it died. “I liked that I had to look after it. It wasn’t just about me anymore.”
Cassie Uphill worships at Burwood Uniting Church. For her, the decision to have her first child was an instinctual one.
“We didn’t really talk about the pros and cons so much. It was more like a hormonal thing for me — my body went, ‘You’ve got to have kids asap.’”
“It was in the contract,” her husband Dave calls out.
The difference a baby makes
Having a baby is like hiring a gung-ho renovator. The newborn takes a sledgehammer to the neat compartments in our lives and remodels them in baby colours.
It’s not just the fabric of our lives that changes — our arrangements, our appointments and our zumba class on Tuesdays. It changes our minds.
For women, many of the changes wrought by pregnancy are out there. A woman becomes a walking metaphor: the pregnant pause; pregnant with anticipation.
There’s a frame for understanding the mental changes that follow … and a dismissive epithet: baby brain.
Less well recognised are the changes approaching fatherhood brings in men.
Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist in the United States, writes that about three weeks before the baby arrives, levels of testosterone —associated with competitiveness and risk-taking — fall by roughly a third. In her book, The Male Brain, she also notes that men get better at hearing a baby’s cry as the due date approaches.
So expectant fathers’ fears — will I know how to care for my child — may be irrelevant or, at least, have a problem of definition.
The “I” that will hold the child will be a different person, chemically altered, even before they hear the first cry.
Geoff Callaghan noticed this change when he and two friends went for a ride down to the Cotter River. At the mouth of the car park, he saw a sign with the dial flicked all the way to “unsafe to swim”.
His two friends went in anyway and called to him from the river, beers in hand. Geoff didn’t go in. He was not previously known for his caution.
“Having kids matures you in that selfless way,” says Geoff. “You have to be responsible. I have to go to bed at a certain hour because I know Maddie’s going to be waking up at 6.30 every morning. I used to go cycling 80 to 100 kilometres every weekend. I can’t remember the last time I did that.”
Growing a family
For Geoff, the sacrifice is worth it. Having children has deepened his relationship with Lauren. “It’s an amazing experience, sharing that with someone you love. It just creates such a strong bond with your partner.”
Sandy Martel works at Unifam Counselling in Parramatta. Many of the new parents she talks to struggle to adjust to the change in their relationship.
Fractures appear on the fault lines.
“Having children is romanticised in many ways,” she says. “I think it puts particular pressure on couple relationships where a third party who needs such intense care fits into that. The resorting of roles can be really tricky.”
The strain comes when expectations don’t match the reality of parenting.
Some couples that Sandy talks to had kids as a way of fixing something. “I’ve worked at times with kids in care,” she says. “And some of them view a baby as something that will love you back. It’s a way of accessing love.”
For older parents, having a child can be a way of repairing a damaged relationship. “You’d think that it’d be a reason not to have kids,” Sandy says, “but for some people having children represents hope for their relationship.”
The social and ethical issues that weigh on new parents’ minds can’t be dismissed outright. Instead, the parents we spoke with very deliberately chose which version of the future they want to live to.
“You wouldn’t have children if you didn’t have hope for the future,” says Cassie.
For Geoff, what were once general concerns about the ethics of having children are visceral fears for his daughters.
“I still worry about what the world’s going to be like when Maddie’s 50 years older. Are we going to live in a world that can support my children?
“I do feel that humanity will solve this problem, though, and we’ll be okay. I’ve got nothing to base that on. Just faith.”
Where the church fits
For the parents we spoke to, even though the church and its teachings didn’t figure largely in the decision to have children, it certainly did after the event.
The church forms an encircling layer around the new parents. Members of the congregation are appointed honorary uncles and aunts. It’s the family that you can choose.
Geoff and Lauren now go to Queanbeyan Uniting. They see their church as a haven from adverse influences.
“I’ve come to really value a community of people with common values that you want to share with your child,” says Geoff.
In Sandy Martel’s counselling work, she sees the reverse image of the church community.
“For some people, to not look like you’re going well is somehow not witnessing,” she says. “Sadly, rather than be a support system, the church can sometimes just be another pressure system.
“If there’s flexibility, and if the community allows for a range of experiences and supports that, I would think that would be very positive.”
The people of Maroubra Junction should be afraid, says Helen Yoo. “I kind of expect a lot from them because they’ve come through so often for us over the last ten years. They’ve shown themselves to be there and I can’t imagine them not being there for us.
“I’m going to read the parenting books but I want to get the advice from my brothers and sisters in Christ in the context that we have now: the 21st century progressive church we live in.”
Matt Fenwick is a freelance writer who lives in Canberra. He doesn’t have any children.
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